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Indian Pass Raw Bar

There is no convenient way to get here.
    "You gotta want to come here," says owner Jim McNeill.
    The Indian Pass Raw Bar is not on a main road. There are no billboards. No magazine ads. No fancy layouts in Food & Wine magazine. Just Jim and a few others, shucking oysters for the locals and the occasional celebrity or tourist that's been tipped off.
    "We don't get much flow-through traffic," McNeill says.
    "All of our stuff is raw, baked or steamed. We don't fry anything, and I think that's one thing people appreciate."
    They also appreciate the oysters from the bar's own 53-acre bed, smaller and sweeter than the monsters sometimes served elsewhere.
    "It's simpler for us," McNeill says. "If they want special stuff, they can bring it down here."
    The building's nothing special, that's for sure. Established by McNeill's grandfather, James McNeill Sr., as a general store in 1929, it has an abandoned look, at least during the day. But despite the tumbledown appearance, the place is a rare find. It's a relic of Old Florida's turpentine-producing days between Apalachicola and Port St. Joe. But it's not totally undiscovered.
    "Oh, we've had Johnny Cash, Lauren Hutton, singers and songwriters, lots of pro athletes," McNeill says, looking at a signed photo of country singer Naomi Judd. The building also graces a page of the Orvis sportswear summer catalog.
    After years of life as a general store, the place and its elderly gas pumps were swamped by Hurricane Kate in 1985. That's when McNeill came up with the raw bar idea, and his father, James Jr., agreed to try it on a temporary basis. Before long, the idea of resurrecting the general store was abandoned.
    The short menu is posted on the wall. Oysters raw, baked or steamed. Shrimp a couple of different ways. A tasty seafood gumbo. Hot dogs. Get your own beer, wine or soft drinks from the cooler on the back wall. A bottle opener is on the support post in the middle of about a dozen tables, each with a roll of paper towels.
    Though the place can get full, there's enough ebb and flow that it never seems crowded. The former store shelves on one wall are packed largely with supplies such as paper towels. Or condiments such as Premium Saltines and Ed's Red, the locally made mixture of pepper sauce, tomatoes, horseradish and other ingredients. "An Oyster's Best Friend," the label says.
    "We've had a lot of people wanting us to open a place in South Florida, Atlanta or Birmingham," McNeill says. "But then it wouldn't be the same. You like this place because of the way it is."
    On birthdays and other special occasions, the big barrel grill is fired up out front. The fare can range from steaks to roasted oysters to whatever some of the regulars bring in. One recent night, someone had fried up some grouper and mullet to pass around.
    Much of the attraction of Florida's Forgotten Coast is its remote location.
   While its beaches and pristine local water are considered among the best in the United States, there are no large hotels, big restaurant locations or other mass tourism outlets. Get off I-10 and head south to U.S. 98, then hunt-and-peck your way around.
   There's some new construction of waterfront homes, but local development rules keep a lid on things.
    "I don't worry about development hurting the quality of our oysters," McNeill says. "Any problems we've had are from Mother Nature, not man-made."
    The oysters come from beds owned by the McNeills or leased nearby. They're in or close to Apalachicola Bay, fed by the pristine Apalachicola River and guarded from the Gulf of Mexico by St. George and St. Vincent islands.
    The rest of the small crew at the Indian Pass Raw Bar is family -- or like family. Marketing and PR is largely confined to sponsoring an annual fishing tournament the last week of June. The event has raised more than $30,000 for the local volunteer fire department.
    That work is handled by Jim's wife, Melissa, who came down from Atlanta for a two-week spring break in 1993 and never really went back.
    "All I wanted was some gumbo and beer," she says.
    Randy Branson has been managing the place since it opened.
    "Down here, you do seafood, construction or work at the (paper) mill (in nearby Port St. Joe)," he says. "But the mill's closed now. I just kinda fell into this."
    The other regular employees are "Gator" Weiland and Audrey Squire. He's the man of few words wearing a baseball cap. She's the resident poet.
    On any given day, the clientele is as likely to be locals from Port St. Joe as it is to be an NFL player, singer Lee Greenwood or some tourists from Germany or New Zealand.
   The McNeills, Randy and Gator keep shucking while Audrey keeps things moving, in an ambiance that can't be faked, embellished or re-created.
    "As long as you enjoy doing something, do it," Jim says. "We'll tell anyone how we make anything. We've had folks from other restaurants come by to see. It ain't hard."
    "You either love this place or not," Gator says. "Most people who love oysters are good people."
   

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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